Edward Shils

November 11, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Fabio linked to this recent tribute to Edward Shils by critic Joseph Epstein in Commentary. Shils was a brilliant man, a polymath. As Epstein says, “His writing . . . often aimed at a high level of generality in the German social-scientific tradition of Max Weber and George Simmel.” He was on the faculty at the University of Chicago, in both the Sociology Department and the Committee on Social Thought.

Two passages in Epstein’s piece caught my attention. In one, Epstein writes approvingly of Shils’s willingness to use the autocratic power of the university administration to stifle dissent.

When graduate students occupied the university’s administration building during the 1960s student protests, Levi [the president of the university], on Edward’s advice, told them to evacuate the building or be removed from the university. Those who chose to remain were summarily expelled, their principles intact but (in many cases) their academic careers ruined.

(One of the characterological hazards of being a conservative is smugness. Instead of  comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, conservatives often find pleasure in the afflicting of the afflicted. The final clause in that passage is a good example. Ah, those ruined careers. Serves ’em right. Epstein, in case it wasn’t clear, is a long-time conservative who regularly writes for conservative publications like Commentary and the Wall Street Journal.)

In another passage, Epstein speaks of Shils’s forthrightness (“he was a person who knew his mind and spoke it without looking over his shoulder”). For example,

He told me that at a dinner party he once queried a married woman who spoke admiringly of Philip Roth about what must be her concomitant admiration for adultery, since that was one of the specialties in Roth’s fiction

This is an incredibly stupid remark. It’s like saying that readers who admire Agatha Christie must also admire actual murder. (And by the way, since few of Roth’s protagonists are married, there isn’t all that much adultery in his novels. Deception is the most notable exception.) Yet here is Shils bragging to Epstein about insulting this woman as though his remark were a gem of Oscar Wilde-like wit. So yeah, Shils was brilliant, but not all the time.

Even dumber is that Epstein, in this remembrance of his “dear friend” chooses to include Shils’s bon mot. Much of Epstein’s writing over the years has been about literature (other topics as well, but mainly literature), and he himself has written many short stories. Surely he must appreciate the difference between fiction and reality.  Yet he repeats without comment Shils’s conflation of the two.

I was tempted to give this post the title “When Smart People Say Stupid Things.” Nil nisi bonum and all that, but Shils died 24 years ago, and Epstein is still alive and writing.

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